Raising 21st Century Innovative Kids with Empathy

By Qing Hua, CEO

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At the inaugural conference of Rock CS—the Rocky Mountain Computer Science Conference for P-12 Educators June 2019—our instructor Becky Muller and I co-presented a 90-minute workshop titled “Educate Robot-proof Kids through Robot Building and Coding.” Our thesis was that students with combined technical and transferable skills will have a smaller chance of being replaced by artificial intelligence (AI). 

During that session, we shared our belief in the importance of including social-emotional learning as a key component of technology learning. We also shared our practice at Build a Robot K12 to blend social-emotional skill learning with robotics building. We borrowed the term “Robot-Proof” from Joseph E. Aoun’s 2017 book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. In his book, Aoun calls on higher ed to provide students opportunities to gain three new literacies: technological literacy, data literacy, and most interesting to us, human literacy. “Technological literacy” is needed for the young generation to understand the world they live in. “Data Literacy” is needed to make sense of the explosive amount of information generated by machines and algorithms. “Human literacy” is needed to understand and collaborate with others who are different from us. While the book is targeted towards audiences in higher education, we see that it has 100% relevance to our practice of human-centered K12 STEM education. 

The world we live in transforms itself 24/7. Cheaper and faster processing and storage capabilities, ever-growing mobile connectivity, and the massive amount of data generated and collected from anywhere anytime have all contributed to the ever more uncertain and unpredictable world we live in. To thrive amidst this uncertainty and create the future with optimism, we must rely on each other as human beings, building and embracing a culture that innovates with empathy. In other words, when we invent new technology, we must have the needs and experiences of other people in mind. Kids should be part of this culture creation. How do we help them? Here are some resources to get you started. 

On Building Empathy

Michele Borba is an education psychologist and the author of the book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. In her book, she shares 9 essential habits including developing emotional literacy and cultivating altruistic leadership abilities to help kids learn and practice empathy. According to Borba, lack of empathy hurts students’ academic performance and hampers their potential to communicate, collaborate, innovate, and problem solve. For a quick tour, watch this TED talk given by Borba:

Dr. Helen Riess is the Chief Scientist and Co-Founder of Empathetics Neuroscience of Emotions. She is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School researching neuroscience of emotions and empathy. Dr. Riess has developed the “Teaching the Teachers” training curricula used by faculty psychiatrists. Her approach has been demonstrated to be effective in several studies.

We recommend her book: The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences. For a short stroll, check out her TED talk: “The Power of Empathy.”

Apply Empathy to Innovation 

The Design Thinking process is a widely adopted method used in innovation. Many variations of the Design Thinking process are practiced and shared globally. The five-stages of Design Thinking developed by Stanford University’s “d.school” is probably the most famous. The five stages are: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. 

Dr. Corrina Lathan has a M.S. in Aeronautics and Astronautics and Ph.D. in Neuroscience from MIT. She was named one of MIT Technology Review’s “Top 100 World Innovators” and the Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Human Enhancement. She’s also the CEO and Co-Founder of AnthroTronix, a biomedical engineering research and development company. Her company develops a diverse portfolio of products including robotics, digital health, wearables, and Augmented Reality (AR).

Dr. Corrina’s TED talk is a great demonstration of how empathy could be used in innovation. Check out her interpretation of the last stanza of “Two Tramps In Mud Time” By Robert Frost in this TED talk. 

“Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future’s sakes”.

Now that parents have learned about empathy and why it is critical to incorporate it into our learning, we can brainstorm ideas that will help our children pay more attention to their own needs and other people’s needs. Let’s work with our kids to explore ways to incorporate empathy into their creations.

Let the journey begin! 

We believe that human-centered skills and technical skills need to go hand in hand in order to create inspired leaders and problem solvers who will direct positive, social change through technological advancement. With this vision in mind, we add Social Emotional Learning (SEL) to all of our courses. Check out our courses. 

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Founder & CEO


Qing is passionate about fusing education, technology, industry, diversity, and human empathy to make this world a better place through education. Before starting Build a Robot K12, Qing worked in the telecommunication industry for 15 years as a senior engineer, engineering manager, and a product manager. Qing holds a MBA and a MS in Telecommunication from University of Colorado at Boulder, a MA in Communications from University of Delaware, and a BS in Electronics Engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. She currently serves on the Colorado Department of Education Gifted Education State Advisory Committee. Outside of work, Qing enjoys books, new tech, music, the outdoors, and exploring new places and cultures.

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